13 January 2006

On Being Mindful of Health

I am prompted to write on this subject because a friend and coworker has been struggling with a severe medical problem that has played havoc with her life for now nearly six weeks. She has had two surgeries in less than a month and has been trying to find time to work and time to be the single parent for her young daughter despite these trials. All I can do is to try and ease her burden at work just a little and to do personal favors for her, such as my offer to cook her dinner some evening--an offer I hope she accepts.

Every January, suddenly the normally, retiring, quiet "self improvement" section of bookstores suddenly leaps out from behind shy shelves and confronts the customer in central aisles and towers that says, "Admit it. You know you came here to buy me." The lure of "New Year's resolutions" is too much for many to resist and all of the morning news shows tell you to to loose those extra holiday-gained pounds, get into shape before you get into your Spring Break beachwear, and how to communicate more effectively with your partner.

I laugh about this phenomenon each year. "Self improvement" has become a way of life for me since I was forced to reckon with the state of my health five years ago at the age of 31. I spent nearly ten months in 2001, dealing with a serious medical problem that forced me to look squarely in the mirror, and face the fact that I had ignored my health for far too long. I had to have invasive abdominal surgery to remove seven rapidly growing tumors, ranging from the size of a pea to one 10 cm in diameter (the size of a grapefruit!). The major concern was that no doctor knew for certainty if the tumors were benign or cancerous until I had the surgery.

Medical researchers are uncertain, based upon current research, whether or not a certain diet, a certain amount of stress, or a lack of exercise are actually direct causes of the condition I have. Many doctors are still convinced that my particular illness is genetic and that I can do little or nothing about it. My mother also had surgery in her forties for similar enlarged tumors. After living with this knowledge for five years, I have come to believe that this "condition" I have may indeed be genetic, but that if I can live a more healthful life, I can slow down or even prevent the tumors from returning.

Two goals I placed upon myself during my long recovery, were losing weight and increasing my strength. As a child I was willowy, but as a teenager I was overweight and not inclined to be involved very much in sports. I did nothing about my weight problems or health for twenty years. I experimented with being vegetarian for several years and initially lost weight, but gained it all back due to the increased amount of starches and sugars I ate or drank. By the time I was thirty, I was back to weighing what I did when I was sixteen, and feeling rather unhappy about my body.

The diagnosed growth of tumors was my wake-up call. Suddenly every day, every meal, made me feel obsessed about my health problems. For the first several months after the discovery of the tumors, I threw caution to the wind because I had an almost fatalistic view that I should "be merry, for tomorrow I may die." Then I received the medical opinion that I must have surgery. I just shut down mentally and became extremely depressed about my health. I ended up calling the minister of my church for help.

He was working from home on the day I called. He invited me to share his lunch and told me something that I will never forget. He told me that in times of great stress and turmoil, he found comfort in the most simple things. He had typed the word "breathe" on a piece of paper and taped it to the dashboard of his car so that whenever he was stuck in traffic and boiling over psychologically about some problem, he would see that word and immediately focus on his breath and, by focusing on his breath, calm down. He also advised me to be mindful of eating, enjoying my food, slowing down to take my meal without rushing. As a person working part-time to support grad school studies, I was always rushing! Finally he also told me to drink more water. Sounds like something a doctor or your mother would say, but I've since read that when you are under stress, drinking clean, pure water instead of soda or juice is the best way to remove the acids in your body that stress produces.

At the time of my meeting with the minister, I was in such a state of panic that I didn't quite get the message. But as I began to be more mindful of what I put into my body, I really did began to calm down or at least tune the stress down a notch or two. No, it didn't cure me or solve my psychological problems, but it did something even better than that. It taught me that we humans living in our world of modern conveniences, cut off from the need to gather and hunt for our own food in Nature; sealed in our hermetic environments with HVAC systems; and living in an age of wonder drugs and long life-expectancies often forget the basics.

Health is really a very fragile state. The assumption of our culture is that if you are unhealthy, you aren't doing your job. You haven't seen the right doctors, haven't jogged enough miles, haven't eaten the right foods or gone on the right diet. It's your fault. Or, it's pure tragedy: "Oh,that poor child," you might hear someone say. "It's just so sad that she got cancer." I say that we are the caretakers of our own health. And if we care for others in our lives, we first need to care for our own state of health.

I am now over 25 pounds lighter than I was before my surgery in 2001, thanks to regular exercise and the South Beach Diet, a nutritional plan that seems to fit my body type and leaves me feeling satisfied after meals. I am also more muscular and stronger than I have ever been in my life because I am now more athletic and I train with weights. I have also recently begun to take yoga, a practice I had first learned at the age of five or six, but had long since given up until just last year. I drink vaster amounts of water and remember to consciously breathe, often remembering that conversation with my minister when I do.

I am a human being. I need air to breathe, water to drink and food to give me energy. When I can be mindful of that, no matter what aches and pains I feel, no matter the state of my chronic sinusitus, I know that I am being mindful of being alive.

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